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The Great And Powerful Oz Of 43rd Street
First we have the original all-knowing, all-seeing Oz, from the 1939 musical:

Oz: The Great and Powerful Oz knows why you have come. Step forward, Tin Man.

Tin Man: Uahh.

Oz: You dare to come to me for a heart, do you? You clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk!

Tin Man: Oooohhh. Uh, yes, yes sir. Yyyes, your Honor. You see, awhile back we were walking down the yellow brick road and --

Oz: QUIET!!!

And here we have the remake, starring Frank Rich, who joins a phographer, Thomas Hoepker, in what Slate's David Plotz deems a Herculean leap to conclusions. In Plotz' words:

In his Sept. 10 column, Frank Rich of the New York Times describes a "taboo 9/11 photo," one so "shocking" that photographer Thomas Hoepker didn't publish it for four years.

In the Hoepker photo, five people are talking on the Brooklyn waterfront as the smoke from the World Trade Center billows across the river. Like the photographer, Rich decided these people were just having a good ole time, and saw deep into their brains, as follows:

...Traumatic as the attack on America was, 9/11 would recede quickly for many. This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker's photo aren't necessarily callous. They're just American. In the five years since the attacks, the ability of Americans to dust themselves off and keep going explains both what's gone right and what's gone wrong on our path to the divided and dispirited state the nation finds itself in today.

Oh, please. What is this, third grade, where the art teacher puts up a picture and the children make up a story about it? Plotz is having none of it:

But wait! Look at the photograph. Do you agree with Rich's account of it? Do these look like five New Yorkers who are "enjoying the radiant late-summer sun and chatting away"? Who have "move[d] on"? Who—in Rich's malicious, backhanded swipe—"aren't necessarily callous"? They don't to me. I wasn't there, and Hoepker was, so it may well be that they were just swapping stories about the Yankees. But I doubt it. The subjects are obviously engaged with each other, and they're almost certainly discussing the horrific event unfolding behind them. They have looked away from the towers for a moment not because they're bored with 9/11, but because they're citizens participating in the most important act in a democracy—civic debate.

Ask yourself: What are these five people doing out on the waterfront, anyway? Do you really think, as Rich suggests, that they are out for "a lunch or bike-riding break"? Of course not. They came to this spot to watch their country's history unfold and to be with each other at a time of national emergency. Short of rushing to Ground Zero and digging for bodies, how much more patriotic and concerned could they have been?

So they turned their backs on Manhattan for a second. A nice metaphor for Rich to exploit, but a cheap shot. I was in Washington on 9/11. I spent much of the day glued to my TV set, but I also spent it racing home to be with my infant daughter, calling my parents and New York relatives, and talking, talking, talking with colleagues and friends. Those discussions were exactly the kind of communal engagement I see in this photo. There is nothing "shocking" in this picture. These New Yorkers have not turned away from Manhattan because they have turned away from 9/11. They have turned away from Manhattan because they have turned toward each other for solace and for debate.

Rich and Hoepker and I have all characterized what these five people were doing and how they were feeling, but none of us really know. Wouldn't you like to hear from the five themselves?

Here's the account from one who was there, a Brooklyn artist named Walter Sipser:

A snapshot can make mourners attending a funeral look like they're having a party.

Thomas Hoepker took a photograph of my girlfriend and me sitting and talking with strangers against the backdrop of the smoking ruin of the World Trade Center on September 11th. Earlier, she and I had watched the buildings collapse from my rooftop in Brooklyn and had made our way down to the waterfront. The Williamsburg Bridge was filled with hundreds of people, covered in dust, helping one another make their way onto the street. It was clear that people who ordinarily would not have spoken two words to each another were suddenly bound together, which I suppose must be a fairly common occurrence in the aftermath of a catastrophe.

We were in a profound state of shock and disbelief, like everyone else we encountered that day. Thomas Hoepker did not ask permission to photograph us nor did he make any attempt to ascertain our state of mind before concluding five years later that, "It's possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it." Had Hoepker walked fifty feet over to introduce himself he would have discovered a bunch of New Yorkers in the middle of an animated discussion about what had just happened. He instead chose to publish the photograph that allowed him to draw the conclusions he wished to draw, conclusions that also led Frank Rich to write, "The young people in Mr. Hoepker's photo aren't necessarily callous. They're just American." A more honest conclusion might start by acknowledging just how easily a photograph can be manipulated, especially in the advancement of one's own biases or in the service of one's own career.

Posted by aalkon at September 14, 2006 11:50 AM

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So now we have the caption-shopped photo!

What is truly bizarre is that Rich is not stupid.

As Plotz points out - the sinister narrative Rich constructs is stupidly perverse in the first place.
Your brain may initially stutter a bit at the chair in the foreground and the familiar composition of folks apparently calmly chatting on a sunny day - but then it resolves into a not very interesting snap of a terrible event.

You'd have to be drunk and already angry about something else at a private dinner party to get briefly hoity toity about what you think the photographer is showing.

But in public, in the NY Times?
Rich isn't usually this stupidly desperate for copy, is he?

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at September 14, 2006 7:00 AM

Nice post. A few years ago there was a picture on the front page of the LAT of sunbathers near Sea Colony reclining on the sand as chaparral smoke was pouring into skies over Malibu. The caption wasn't judgmental, it was just ironic. Anyway, life is like that. We often see horrible things happening nearby, but have no authority to interfere or no assistance to contribute. Ever hear your married neighbors fighting?

Posted by: Crid at September 14, 2006 7:21 AM

What I find bizarre is these writers are just discovering -- with much disillusioned outrage, apparently -- that photographs can be attached to any number of free-floating interpretations. Whatever happened to a well-rounded liberal arts education? These folks need to dig up some Roland Barthes (especially "Image, Music, Text" and "Elements of Semiology"). Or look at some old Godard flicks. For chrissake, the 60s weren't THAT long ago.

Posted by: Lena at September 14, 2006 7:32 AM

What Lena said.

Posted by: Crid at September 14, 2006 7:51 AM

What is truly bizarre is that Rich is not stupid.

Yeah, I do find that idea bizarre.

Posted by: Jim Treacher at September 14, 2006 8:06 AM

I wonder if the people in the photo might have legal recourse here. I remember a case where a woman was in a crowd shot of a TV news story about herpes. She sued the TV station and won.

I did a little TV production work in college, and we were constantly reminded to be careful about things like this.

Posted by: Gary S. at September 14, 2006 9:22 AM

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